James Douglas

James Douglas: The great Scottish hero and The feared Knight

James Douglas

Sir James Douglas, aka the Black Douglas, is one of the most feared Scottish knights and trusted lieutenant of Robert Bruce. He is known for his valor and ferocity. James Douglas is remembered in Scottish history as ‘the good’ Douglas, a Scottish hero, while the English remember him as James ‘the Black’ Douglas, a fearful knight.

Statue of James 'The Black' Douglas
Statue of James ‘The Black’ Douglas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early life

James Douglas was born in 1286 to William Douglas, also known as ‘the hardy’ or ‘the bold,’ and Elizabeth Stewart, daughter of Alexander Stewart, the fourth High Steward of Scotland.  Douglas’ father supported William Wallace, a freedom fighter, in his efforts to resist the invasion of Scotland by English forces, which resulted in King Edward imprisoning him in the Tower of London, where he was eventually hung, drawn and quartered. Moreover, Douglas estates were also confiscated and were awarded to Robert Clifford.

William Wallace
William Wallace. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The imprisonment and eventually death of his beloved father gave a boost to the hatred for Englishmen that had already understandably set its roots in James Douglas upon the invasion of his native land, which eventually led him to the title he holds to this day.

Douglas was sent to France during the war of independence for safety. In Paris, he received early education, and there he met Lamberton, who took James under his wing as a squire. James Douglas came back to Scotland alongside Lamberton only to find that his estates had been confiscated and awarded to Robert Clifford.

Lamberton took him to the English court to sign a petition for his land to be returned to him. However, when it was brought to the King’s attention that he was William Douglas’s son, his petition was denied. He was declared an outcast and forced to leave. Edward was oblivious of the fact that he had made Douglas into his greatest enemy, a step that he would soon regret.

Rise of the ‘black’ Douglas

Douglas had noble blood in him. Born into a family loyal to the Scottish crown, he followed the footsteps of his ancestors and resisted the English advancements. James’s career can be divided into two phases: the first phase took place before Robert Bruce was crowned King and the second phase after the coronation. However, his career bloomed when he met Bruce and was made a knight.

The face of Robert the Bruce
The face of Robert the Bruce. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Bruce took the throne in 1306 upon killing John- the red Comyn, a hated rival of the Scottish people. It is said that Bruce, after stabbing Comyn with his dagger, ran out and told his attendants that he doubts he might have slain Comyn. On hearing this, sir Roger de Kirkpatrick of Closeburn ran inside the church to make sure if Comyn was dead.

Not more than seven weeks later, Bruce then met James Douglas at the road near Moffat while Bruce was headed to scone for the coronation to take place. Douglas was riding a horse borrowed from Lamberton. Upon this fateful encounter, the King invited Douglas to fight by his side. This marked the start of a faithful companionship between King Bruce and his trustee, James Douglas.

Douglas and Bruce had their initial setbacks, such as defeat in the battles of Dalrigh and Methven, both of which occurred in 1306. But these temporary setbacks proved to be a blessing in disguise because the two were able to acknowledge that they faced an army that was better equipped in terms of weaponry and resources and had more manpower.

This led to them recognizing the need of the hour, the art of guerilla warfare which entailed combatants using speed, agility, and certain tactics such as sneak attacks, raids, sabotages, and hit and run methods to take down an army that was larger in size and thus slower. By 1307, they had learned this art of secret warfare, which later proved to be very beneficial in the numerous battles they fought.

James Douglas and the Douglas ‘Larder’

Douglas partook in guerilla warfare, where he would sneak up tactfully and ruthlessly attack the enemy. One of the most brutal massacres was when James Douglas attacked English Garrison at his family seat in Douglas castle at Dumfries and Galloway. The Englishmen had left to partake in the mass since it was Palm Sunday, so Douglas’s allies found the castle to be empty. They entered the castle chanting to the war cry “Douglas! Douglas!” and so they took the castle.

All the English survivors were led to the cellar, where they were beheaded. Their bodies and their heads were stacked up on wine casks and were set aflame. The whole castle burned.  The wells were poisoned with salt and horse carcasses making them unfit for the villagers. This barbaric conduct came to be known in history as ‘the Douglas Larder’ of 1307 and earned Douglas his sinister reputation, the fear of whom lived on in the hearts of the Englishmen who lost their companions in the gruesome larder.

In 1306, the King and Douglas had suffered defeat at the hands of MacDougall’s of Lorn, who were related to the Scottish rival, Comyn, in the battle of Dalrigh. But this time, they were well prepared with their robustness and agile moves. They were ready to take down the English forces, and so they intercepted the enemy at the narrow Pass of Brander.

With his skillful tactics, James Douglas was successful in defeating the enemy, after which he returned South to join the King’s brother in an attack on Rutherglen castle near Glasgow.

The ‘black’ Douglas takes the Roxburgh Castle.

James Douglas’s strategy in capturing the fortress of Roxburgh was one of his most brilliant schemes. Douglas took the Roxburgh Castle in 1314, alongside a few of his men. Wearing cloaks and disguised under cowhide, they made their way to the castle.  Mistaking Douglas’s army for cattle, the English-men fell for their trap.

In the dark of the night, Douglas’s men crept up to the castle. Using a rope ladder, they climbed up. The defenders, overwhelmed by such a sudden ambush, failed to protect the fortress, a thus it fell into the hands of James Douglas and his men. The castle was then slighted so that the Englishmen would not be able to use it again.

James Douglas declared knight banneret.

The morning before the battle of Bannockburn took place, Bruce seeing great potential in James Douglas, awarded him with great honor. Douglas was declared knight banneret, which meant that he now had the authority to lead under his banner without the command from the King. A knight banneret had a higher rank than a mere Knight bachelor but was just below the rank of a Duke or Earl. Douglas had proved himself many times on the battlefield and thus was rewarded for his valor and bravery. Douglas carried his duties faithfully till the very moment he died.

James ‘the black’ Douglas and the Battle of Bannockburn

Depiction of The Battle of Bannockburn
Depiction of The Battle of Bannockburn. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The battle of Bannockburn took place in 1314, in which James Douglas fought alongside Robert Bruce against Kind Edward II. King Edward’s army was headed toward the Sterling castle, but it was an attempt to draw out Bruce and his army from hiding. The Scottish army, as compared to that of English, was few in number, yet it was courageous and resilient.

The Scottish army was headed towards the wild country to the west, but their location at Bannockburn had certain advantages, and so under the order of Robert Bruce, the guerrilla activities reached a halt at Bannockburn. Here, they encountered the enemy and successfully conquered them.

The English army, humiliated by its defeat, fled under the leadership of their commander, but Douglas, persistent in his efforts, decided to chase them. However, Edward and his men took shelter in the Dunbar castle and were able to avoid the gruesome fate that awaited them at the hands of James ‘the black’ Douglas.

With the victory in the battle of Bannockburn and now with Berwick in Scottish hands, the control of Englishmen over Scottish land had effectively ended. However, King Edward was still stubborn enough not to give up the power.

James Douglas- The warlord

Following the Battle of Bannockburn, James Douglas staged a deep raid into the English territory and terrorized villagers, burnt crops. His barbaric conduct was so notorious that it had the mothers making up folksongs, singing their terrified children to sleep. “Hush ye, Hush ye, the black Douglas cannot get ye,” they sang in an attempt to comfort their children. This was when he earned himself the title of ‘the Black Douglas,’ a boogeyman, someone to be feared.

In April 1318, he was triumphant in taking Berwick from the enemy. The town had been in English hands since 1296. In 1319, the English wanting to reconquer Berwick, assembled an army. Edward, on this quest, was accompanied by the Queen. A raid began, which was rumored to be aimed at capturing the Queen.

Fearful for the Queen’s safety, she was immediately removed and ended up taking refuge in Nottingham. This led to the battle of Myton, which resulted in a humongous amount of blood lost. However, the dissent created among the English forces led to the end of the mission aimed at recapturing Berwick.

 Ten years later, in 1327, King Edward II had been succeeded by his teenage son, King Edward III. However, the power lied with Edward II’s wife and her lover, whose joint effort had King Edward II dethroned.

Edward III, in an attempt to draw Douglas in battle, left with an army quite large in size. Searching for the Scot army, they encountered them at River Wear. However, the Scottish army refused to battle with them. However, Edward and his men, determined to fight with Douglas, encountered the army again at Stanhope Park.

James Douglas responded to this attempt at invasion by raiding deep into the English territory attacking in the dark of the night, taking the enemy by surprise. He also almost succeeded in capturing Edward III.

James Douglas and the heart of Bruce

Fighting side by side, Douglas and Bruce had developed an unwavering bond. Bruce held Douglas in the highest regard, and his faith in Douglas did not for once falter. While he was taking his last breath, King Bruce called upon Douglas. He had made a vow to pilgrimage to the Holy land but had no strength left in him to do so. His time was drawing near. Therefore, he turned to his most trusted soldier and entrusted this task to him. The Kind died in 1329 and was buried at the Manor of Cardross, Dunbartonshire.

Douglas was instructed to take Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land, specifically, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to fulfill his last wish. Honoring his King’s request, Douglas placed Bruce’s heart in a cask and tied it around his neck. During his journey, he met the King of Castile and joined him in the crusades against the Muslims.

During the crusades, while staying in Teba in Spain, the village was attacked by moors. Douglas’s Spanish allies turned their backs on him and left him to engage in the battle all by himself. He dove in the tumult, throwing the cask, ready to march in his last battle. Douglas incurred five deep wounds and died on the battlefield.

 Thus, the most feared Knight in Scottish history, the black Douglas, joined his master in the realms of the afterlife. It is said that before Douglas took on his last bloodshed when he removed the cask from his neck, he murmured, “Go before as thou hast did,” bidding farewell to the King’s last memento.  After the battle, although Douglas’s body was found severely cut, it is said that the cask remained unharmed.

 James ‘the black’ Douglas was taken back to his beloved homeland, the place where his ancestors lived. He was buried at St Bride’s Kirk, at Douglas, Lanarkshire. Bruce’s heart, on the other hand, was carried back to Scotland by Sir William Keith of Galston and was buried at the Abbey of Melrose, as promised.

You may enjoy reading about other knights here.

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